By Deepsekhar Choudhury
The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” former Facebook engineer Jeff Hammerbacher has been quoted as lamenting. In an era when tech companies whose business models primarily depend upon attracting clicks are the biggest money spinners, one might wonder if talented people are at all investing themselves in innovating outside the virtual world. Ati Motors, a Bengaluru based start-up, defies all the stereotypes of tech startups. Founded by former computer science professor V Vinay, science prodigy Saad Nasser and serial entrepreneur Saurabh Chandra in 2016, it has built a self-driving vehicle that can transport cargo inside factory floors, warehouses and even construction sites. The company recently shipped its first Sherpa, named after a Nepali mountain community famed for their super-athletic physicality, to a big industrial company in Chennai.
Vinay, who also co-invented the Simputer, says, “We did not want to compete with the Googles and Teslas of the world.” Ati wanted to build a vehicle like the Tata Ace which is popularly known as chota hathi for its utility in carrying cargo over tough, challenging terrains. He says that traditionally factory floors have used autonomous guided vehicles (AGV) but these can travel only along magnetic strips. Moreover, if the layout of a factory floor changes, the magnetic strip would have to be re-laid. The Sherpa has been engineered to function without those hassles.
The Sherpa uses a combination of LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, cameras, infrared sensors, wheel encoders, etc., to negotiate traffic on an industrial site. Critical portions of the software that enables autonomy has been created ground-up by the company. The map that is used for navigation can be updated in 20 minutes whenever the layout of the functional area changes.
“The way to look at our vehicle is that it’s a sort of Uber in a factory. You could have multiple Sherpas in the factory. The moment your package is ready and you want to send it to some other place, you can just summon the vehicle and the nearest Sherpa will come to you, pick things up and go to the destination,” says the co-founder. The startup also took care to ensure that the vehicle does not have the fallibility of robot wheels. The Sherpa uses three automobile wheels, each fitted with a motor, so that it can work on rough outdoor terrains too. With dimensions of 5.5 feet x 3 feet and 200 kg weight, the Sherpa can transport a 500 kg load.
AGVs imported from the US or Europe cost $70,000-100,000 and yet aren’t completely self-driving like the Sherpa, according to Vinay. While Ati hasn’t locked a particular price point yet, it could be pegged at `30-35 lakh eventually, which is at aleast 40% cheaper. However, the founder insists that “we don’t want to sell because we are cheap, but because of how well the vehicle works.”
One big challenge for the Sherpa is making its tablet-based user interface simple enough for a factory worker to operate. “When we are selling the vehicle, we are actually selling a vision to a CEO of a company or a top executive,” the professor explains. However, getting it to work on a factory floor by a semi-lierate worker who may also perceive the automation as a threat could be a problem. Ati aims to sell eight to ten Sherpas this year. It has received seed funding and angel investments, but is largely bootstrapped. Vinay says that they will look out for venture capital as manufacturing larger numbers will require setting up of a factory.
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